Late last year I met Sarah Blair at the opening of Map of the Heart’s Sydney boutique. Map of the Heart is a relatively new Australian fragrance brand, which Sarah founded with filmmaker Jeffrey Darling. Sarah and I chatted about the vision behind her brave move from the visual world of film and photography to the olfactory world of fragrances. Conceptually, Map of the Heart explores human emotions through its metaphorical symbol – the human heart. Sarah and Jeffrey worked with renowned French designer Pierre Dinand to create an anatomical heart-shaped bottle for five distinct fragrances. The pair created their initial five fragrances with French perfumer Jacques Huclier and a sixth fragrance has recently been added to the collection. Jacques’ name is attributed to a diverse range of fragrances and brands. In addition to his work for Map of the Heart, Jacques created Thierry Mugler’s highly regarded A*Men fragrance along with numerous other fragrances over the course of a career that spans three decades. Some of my favourite moments in the Map of the Heart collection include Black Heart v.2 with its dark essence of smoky woods, “inspired by the beauty and terror of Australian bush fires that are both destructive and regenerative”. I also like Red Heart v.3, which finds balance between the soft flow of flowers and musk, and the angular notes of spices and woods.
When I was invited to interview Jacques for an article that would feature on Map of the Heart’s website, I jumped at the chance since I’ve always enjoyed speaking with perfumers about their work and their individual approach to making fragrances. The article is now available on Map of the Heart’s website and for fragrance buffs who want to hear more from Jacques, I’ve published the entire interview here on my blog, including bits of our conversation that ended up on my cutting room floor after I edited together my article for Map of the Heart.
WMSSL: So you’re in New York at the moment?
Jacques Huclier: Yes. Up until July last year I was based in Paris and that is where I started the Map of the Heart fragrances, but I am now based in New York.
WMSSL: How are you finding the change? I suppose the types of projects you work on for American clients are different?
Jacques Huclier: Yes, it is very different because at first it is not the same. The perfumery is a little bit different here. For example, the fragrances are fruitier and muskier. The messages are more direct. In Europe, they are more complex or maybe a little bit more intellectual, which I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but they are definitely different. It is a new experience but I like that. I think in life, if we have the opportunity, it is good to have a new challenge and to see different things.
WMSSL: Will you be in New York for a long period of time?
Jacques Huclier: The goal is for me to stay for a long period of time, I love New York and had lived here 15 years ago, so I’m quite happy to be back.
WMSSL: So let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about yourself and your career as a perfumer. How did you get into the business and what has been your journey so far?
Jacques Huclier: When I was younger I completed a chemistry degree and after two years of chemistry I wanted to continue with something in that world. I realised very young that I loved to smell things. I smelled stones, toys, spices and of course flowers. I didn’t know that I wanted to become a perfumer. I realised I had a good olfactory sense and when I found out about ISIPCA, the perfume school in Versailles. I took the olfactory test and I passed. For example they gave me two blotters and on the list I had mandarin, lemon and orange. I had to recognise the citrus mixing. I passed the exam and I became a perfumer. It was a good adventure because I was not calculating to become a perfumer but it was an easy transition.
WMSSL: After you completed your studies at ISPICA, did you transfer directly to Givaudan?
Jacques Huclier: First, I did some training at Christian Dior and Firmenich then six weeks at a smaller company. In 1990 I started in Quest, which later merged with Givaudan.
WMSSL: How do you develop your own style as a perfumer?
Jacques Huclier: Speaking with modesty, I love fragrances and it’s a passion. I’ve worked on products for the mass market to niche. I don’t want to only work for high perfumery or niche products, I try to work specifically for the project. Generally, my style is to have a friendly platform while trying to add something really intriguing. I have worked with Parfums Thierry Mugler for example, I think A*Men is a friendly fragrance. At first it was a little bit strange, but more and more people love this fragrance. I try to make a friendly fragrance and after, I push some ingredients to make it more intriguing, interesting and bigger.
WMSSL: When you talk about perfume being friendly, do you mean the perfume is easier to understand by a broader audience?
Jacques Huclier: If you create something completely strange, then people are a little bit lost. Even if I like to put something strange in a perfume, I think you need to add some elements in the formula, which are a little bit pleasant, something that is reassuring.
WMSSL: There is a lot of talk about perfumers being artists and I know every perfumer has a different opinion, but where do you see yourself? Are you an artist, designer, engineer or craftsman?
Jacques Huclier: For me an engineer would be something more around mathematics. A designer is more about physical materials. I think I will say first, I am a craftsman because I think a perfumer has to combine and model things with precision. Yes, with modesty, I think I am an artist because I need to find new ideas, make new experiments and I have to take a look around me and to try to translate what I see, what I smell or taste. So I think perfumery sits more in the artistic dimension. So yes, I am an artist but to be a good perfumer, which I hope I am, you need to also have savoir-faire.
WMSSL: Is the development of this savoir-faire something that happens during your training, let’s say at ISIPCA, or does it develop on the job, through your practice and through mentoring by other perfumers?
Jacques Huclier: I think it begins after school. Every day I learn something. It may not be something big but the combination of all these discoveries gives me my style. So yes, I think I learnt it more after school rather than during, and you know, it is when I make my experiments and I discuss my work with my colleagues or other perfumers. It’s not just by me but also my collaborators.
WMSSL: How do you do to maintain your creativity away from the office? Outside of the world of perfume, what inspires you?
Jacques Huclier: Travel is a source of inspiration. I’m also happy to be in New York. I am French and it is my country but to be in New York, I can see Central Park, the streets of Soho and Brooklyn. I can smell the streets and go into some stores. Unfortunately I have never visited Australia but I have seen China and India with just a backpack. I have been to India three times and one of my best olfactory experiences was walking in the smaller city of Bundi, Rajasthan. I discovered a wonderful tea store. The guy made a tea with a lot of spices and a nice combination of cardamom, pepper, lemon, clove and ginger. With different levels of things, honestly, that tea was very wonderful and exciting. I recreated the smell. I have an accord here. Just in travelling I find a lot of inspiration. Travel was very important when I worked with Sarah and Jeff because they are located in Australia and when they mentioned some things for the Black Heart v.2, such as dry and burnt wood, for me I couldn’t imagine it better if I just worked on it from my office. When you travel you can see things better. When I worked on the Gold Heart v.4, I found inspiration in travelling and in restaurants where I tried different cuisines. As a perfumer, it’s a little bit like being a chef in food, or a painter. We like to combine the elements. I also try to find inspiration in colours. I have classified my ingredients by colour and olfactive points. When I receive a project, a good example is Map of the Heart; if I think about the recent one, which will be on the market soon, I worked the pink colour with my pink palette and the Purple Heart v.5 used the violet ingredients.
WMSSL: Comparing a niche project like Map of the Heart to a more widely known brand, does your creative process change depending on the size of the project or if you are creating a niche perfume versus something that needs to be more commercial?
Jacques Huclier: It is different. If you take Map of the Heart, which is more creative, more innovative, so more unique. I can use more olfactively challenging ingredients, which makes the perfume more intriguing. So indeed, it depends on the project and the brand. Based on that, I create something more or less innovative. Sarah and I realised something very interesting. This project is something very unique and when you smell the Black Heart, or the Gold Heart, with the milk and the spices, it is special. The new Pink Heart is about narcissus flowers. There aren’t as many narcissus fragrances. There are a lot around rose, violet and tuberose. The challenge was to put a lot of narcissus, even if it is expensive, but when you work for a niche brand you have the opportunity to look at higher prices and to combine with different ingredients and put the narcissus in front of everything. I added a touch of shiso leaf.
WMSSL: It is very interesting because when I think of pink, I think more of jasmine or rose. Narcissus can be quite a difficult material for perfumers to work with and for consumers to appreciate.
Jacques Huclier: Yes. It is true. It is very floral. It is pink but here is a more romantic and narcotic exploration. It is more feminine.
WMSSL: Looking at Map of the Heart, do these niche projects give you the opportunity to do something that is a little bit more challenging?
Jacques Huclier: It was always in the brief. When I worked with Sarah it was always mentioned that it has to be very unique. We didn’t want to create something trendy because, for me, what was interesting is for it to be unique.
WMSSL: So in terms of the creative process, there’s Sarah, Jeff (co-founder Map of the Heart) and yourself. Who else was involved in the creative process? Do you work with evaluators as well? With big commercial projects, Marketing is heavily involved but in niche perfumery, it’s a little bit different, no?
Jacques Huclier: Yes indeed. Normally for big projects or main lines, we have Marketing and Evaluation, people between sales and the perfumer who smell and evaluate because they know all the fragrances. When you create you can do it by yourself but it’s good to have communication and exchanges. With Map of the Heart, I send the ideas to Sarah so even if she is not a professional evaluator, she smells well and I work with Giovanna Aicardi who also helps me to develop Map of the Heart’s fragrances. It is good to have confrontation between people because the perfumer, even if he or she is very good, makes everything very round and they have to be a pushed a little bit to make it ‘bigger’.
WMSSL: In the creative process it must be good to have that external person who can step back and help you to critique your work from a bird’s eye view given you are so involved, working so close to your formula.
Jacques Huclier: Yes. It is good to have someone around me to push me. Sometimes it can be my wife or friends. Often I wear the fragrance on my skin during weekends or during the evening and when I see somebody, I show my work and I ask, “What do you think?” This way I get some feedback or evaluation from people. Yes, when you are in your fragrance you don’t see the small imperfections. Sometimes they can be positive but it is good to have an external nose.
WMSSL: Do you think that your perfumery style will evolve after some time in NY?
Jacques Huclier: Yes I think so, probably, I’m trying to put my European or French style into American perfumery. I will learn more about fruits. In Map of the Heart Red Heart v.3, the fragrance is fruity from feijoa. I find fruit difficult in Paris but working with Sarah I think it is one of the best from the collection. Sometimes fruity notes aren’t so boring. They can be interesting.
WMSSL: When you worked on Map of the Heart, what was the most enjoyable part of the project? And what were some of the challenges that you had to overcome?
Jacques Huclier: When I worked on the project with Sarah at the beginning, I tried to find two ideas through a lot of discussion with Sarah and Jeff. I didn’t want to say “that is the solution”. I wanted to have the discussion with them. So the beginning was very interesting and pleasant to find two or three prototypes. After our discussion, very quickly we chose one and the most difficult part was to find the good combination and a good translation of what Sarah and Jeff wanted. Another challenge was to find something unique and interesting or intriguing, and of course something that people want to wear. It is easy to make a fragrance very extreme, but if nobody wants to wear it or buy it, then at the end you have to balance it all. The most difficult part comes at the end. It is about knowing whether to stop where we are, or to continue. Do we have a good result, a good fragrance? One day you have to say; “Now I think it has a good balance. It is perfectly what we wanted to do and it is a good translation of the words, which were given to me.”
WMSSL: How do you translate the brief into raw materials? Sarah and Jeff come from a visual world of film and art, so you are the expert in the olfactory world. How do you link, for example sandalwood or the raw materials to their story?
Jacques Huclier: First, about the Australian sandalwood, it has to be in all the fragrances. It is something I introduced because Australian sandalwood gives a nice woodiness. It is the heartbeat of Australia. For the other ingredients, as I told you earlier, I start from colour. I start with two or three options. Quickly we worked around violet and liquorice because they are dark. So I think I start from colour and the sentences Sarah gives me. What you can see, especially in the last few creations, more and more we have edited with the colours and the atmosphere.
WMSSL: Which Heart is your favourite in the collection?
Jacques Huclier: It is difficult. It is like a father or mother when you have six fragrances or children; who is your favourite? I can tell you that personally, I like the Gold Heart because from my travels I like spicy fragrances. It is a little bit milky, so I like this one very much. I think that the last one, the Pink Heart v.6, you will see, is very interesting because some florals can be common and familiar but with narcissus, it was a big challenge and also I like it very much. But I think what is good is that every fragrance in the collection is very interesting and we can touch different people within the collection.
For more information on the Map of the Heart fragrances visit: www.mapoftheheart.com
Thank you to Map of the Heart for the opportunity to interview Jacques Huclier and to Jacques for offering such an open or candid interview. I haven’t smelled Pink Heart v.6 yet so this is now high on my “to-smell” list.